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Homo Ludens: Why We Play


Disclaimer: due to the coronavirus pandemic, this course description might be subject to changes. For the latest updates regarding corona virus, please check this link.

Topics: Play, Ethnography, Culture, Religion, Politics, Performance, Embodied Knowledge.
Disciplines: Social and Behavioural Sciences, Cultural Anthropology, History, Art.
Skills: Students will practise ethnographic research, presenting, academic writing, critical thinking.

Admission requirements:

This course is an (extracurricular) Honours Class: an elective course within the Honours College programme. Third year students who don’t participate in the Honours College, have the opportunity to apply for a Bachelor Honours Class. Students will be selected based on i.a. their motivation and average grade.

Please note: This course is not available for students who have taken the Science & Society module Homo Ludens: Our ability to play as a foundation for a healthy society.


Why should we study such a frivolous activity as play? Why, when and where do humans play? How do we even recognize play? Is play connected to the wild side of human nature? Can it be serious? Why are ambiguities or paradoxes so inherently connected to play? These and more questions are central in the class Homo Ludens: why we play. Our underlying assumption is the idea of Leiden University’s historian and philosopher Johan Huizinga that culture is in its essence play. He famously stated: '... civilisation is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play (...), it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.' (Huizinga 1955:173)

In 8 seminars we will study play within different social fields such as kinship, religion, politics and wellbeing, but also the arts and child development. Children obviously play. But as adults, we also play: not only in leisure time (e.g. music, sports and games) but also in our professional lives, the element of play is a driving force in our behaviour and choices. In this course, we aim to combine theoretical insights and critical reflections with experimental modes of learning. Therefore, next to the application of imaginative practices and creative methodologies in class students will look for play in their own lifeworld and conduct field research.

Course objectives:

After completing this course, you will be:

  • familiar with a broad range of insights on human play and playful behaviour;

  • familiar with current debates on the importance of play in contemporary society;

  • able to conduct qualitative field research;

  • be able to take your position in current scholarly debates on playing as an essential part of human nature and society.

Programme and timetable:

The meetings will take place on Fridays from 13.15 - 15.30.

Session 1: 11 February
Introduction: Play Theory and Practice

Session 2: 18 February
Play and child development

Session 3: 25 February
Playing with Kinship / Play in Kinship

Session 4: 4 March
Religion as Play

Session 5: 11 March
Playing Politics

Session 6: 18 March (or own chosen time)

Session 7: 25 March (or own chosen time)

Session 8: 8 April
Art as Play

Session 9: 22 April
Play as a Source for Well-Being

Concluding Seminar: 13 May (13:15 - 16:30)
Research Presentations (depending on number of research projects, this meeting may take longer than 2.5 hours)

The Living Lab, Pieter de la Court building, room 1B01

Reading list:

Huizinga, J. (1949) Homo Ludens, a study of the play element in culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (Foreword and page 1 – 14)

Farrelly, C. (2013) Play and Politics, Journal of Political Science Education,9:4, 487- 500

Vandewaetere, S. (2015) Playing After Auschwitz: the case of Primo Levi and Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens. Incontri
And a number of documentaries.

Other literature will be announced in class and via Brightspace.

Course load and teaching method:

This course is worth 5 ECTS, which means the total course load equals 140 hours:

  • Meetings: 8 x 2.5h = 20 hours (participation is mandatory);

  • Literature reading: 6 hours/week;

  • Preparatory assignments: 3 hours/week;

  • Writing research proposal: 15 hours;

  • Fieldwork: 2 x 2.5h = 5 hours;

  • Final assignment (video, theatre or academic blog series): 25 hours.

Assessment methods:

The assessment methods will look as follows:

  • 10% Preparatory assignments;

  • 20% Presentation during class;

  • 30% Research plan;

  • 40% Final assignment: video or academic blog series.

Brightspace and uSis:

Brightspace will be used in this course. Upon admission students will be enrolled in Brightspace by the teaching administration.

Please note: students are not required to register through uSis for the Bachelor Honours Classes. Your registration will be done centrally.

Registration process:

Submitting an application for this course is possible from Monday 1 November 2021 up to and including Thursday 11 November 2021 23:59 through the link on the Honours Academy student website.

Note: students don’t have to register for the Bachelor Honours Classes in uSis. The registration is done centrally before the start of the class.

Nienke van der Heide:
Nienke Muurling: